MARYLAND FILMMAKING AT A CROSSROADS Baltimore becoming pricey ticket for filmmakers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The television film seemed like the perfect candidate for 1/2 shooting in Baltimore. It had, by industry standards, the kind of modest budget -- $3.5 million -- that all but assured its making outside the expensive film centers of Los Angeles and New York. What's more, the story about a lawyer, played by Walter Matthau, trying to free a woman from a state mental institution in the 1940s was actually set in Baltimore.

In fact, the film's producers spent several weeks scouting locations here. But when it came time to begin shooting earlier this spring, they spurned the city that had been the site for such movies as ". . . And Justice for All," "The Acciden tal Tourist" and "Avalon."

"Cobb's Law," which completed filming last month, is tentatively scheduled to air on CBS early next year -- still with the verbal references to Baltimore, but with Pittsburgh providing the visual backdrop.

"We would have liked to have shot the picture [in Baltimore]," explains Dan Martin, executive vice president for production at RHI Entertainment, the New York-based company that developed the project.

"But we were on a limited budget and were looking to economize as much as possible. Baltimore is union, Pittsburgh is non-union. Pittsburgh is cheaper."

The loss of "Cobb's Law" has contributed to the recent dearth of feature filmmaking in Maryland, where, with a boost from home-grown directors John Waters and Barry Levinson, some three dozen pictures have been partially or totally shot in the last dozen years.

Although a handful of deals are said to be in the works, no Hollywood movie has been shot here since "Homicide," scheduled for fall release, wrapped up its shooting last November.

The lack of activity has led to questions about whether Maryland has been permanently overtaken as an attractive movie-making locale or has lost a significant amount of momentum.

"We were on a run," says Pat Moran, longtime associate producer for John Waters and co-owner of a local casting agency.

She cites an approximately three-year period from 1987 to 1990 that saw in rapid succession the filming of "Accidental Tourist," "Clara's Heart," "Hairspray," "Her Alibi" and others. "How can you have all that work and then all of a sudden have no work? I'm afraid we're pricing ourselves out of the market."

Jay Schlossberg-Cohen, director of the Maryland Film Commission, which promotes the state as a filmmaking area, admits the feature film industry has been in a "slow cycle" here but is not ready to write 1991 off as a total loss.

"Usually we do two to three big productions a year," he says. "We still may do what we normally do. We're very close on four major productions, though that means nothing to me until they're here.

"I believe we'll get projects here. I don't believe we'll be a blank. But I don't know. This is entertainment."

Mr. Schlossberg-Cohen says that the local film industry is at a crossroads as well as in a trough. "We've had consistency," he says. "Now our goal is to grow. Can we? How do we? That's what we're trying to work on."

Besides the economic benefits of feature filmmaking, which pumped in an estimated $42 million to the state last year, there are also the psychic rewards from having a major motion picture shot here.

"It's a sense of tremendous pride for people," says Tom Kiefaber, an owner of the historic Senator Theatre, which has hosted the premieres of virtually all the made-in-Baltimore movies.

"They come out of the theater beaming about their city." "We're still very star-struck in this town," he adds. "We think it's neat when they close off streets because they're filming a movie."

When the movie is actually set in Baltimore, that feeling is compounded. Mr. Levinson's "Avalon," the story of a Jewish immigrant family that spent three months on location in and around the city, drew 60,000 people during a 10-week run at the Senator last fall -- the highest attendance for the picture recorded by any house in the country, according to Mr. Kiefaber.

But it's not only feature filmmaking that's in the doldrums locally. The less glamorous commercial and industrial end of the business, which accounts for 10 times as much economic impact, is also experiencing a downturn.

Mr. Schlossberg-Cohen says that he doesn't know how much it is off because the film commission, with an annual budget of just $350,000, doesn't have the money to conduct a survey.

Those involved in such projects say their business is off between third and a half, which they attribute to corporate cutbacks in advertising as well as a reduction in training and promotional videos, all a result of the recession.

If the state of the economy explains the downturn in commercial and industrial filmmaking, the answer to the months-long paucity of feature filmmaking here is not so simple.

The problems began last November, with the expiration of a contract between two film union locals in New York City and the major Hollywood film and television producers. When negotiations reached an impasse, the producers declared an "embargo" on filmmaking in New York that lasted until a new agreement was reached last month.

At first, it seemed that the situation in New York, where more than 100 major films are shot each year, would mean more business for Maryland. But in fact the boycott extended down the East Coast, with producers going instead to such cities as Chicago, Toronto and Pittsburgh.

The New York embargo came on the heels of a major change in the labor situation involving two Baltimore locals representing free-lance film and video technicians: In October the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians Local 15 voted to join the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees and form a single local embracing all film workers, IATSE Local 487.

The merger, which was not done on a national level, followed years of bitter bickering between the two locals. In the last two years IATSE had filed charges of unfair labor practices with the National Labor Relations Board against the producers of "Cry-Baby" and "Homicide," charging that they had illegally entered into pre-hire agreements with NABET.

A settlement was reached on the first charge, while the second was dropped.

Scott Harbinson, a former NABET official who is now the international representative of IATSE Local 487, says the merger will eventually benefit the local filmmaking industry because the pooled personnel will allow for simultaneous staffing of more projects.

But he admits melding the two groups has been a "slow process," likening it to the "relationship between the Americans and the Germans after World War II."

Many believe the uncertainty over the new arrangement is one reason producers have shunned the area. "The situation is a little unsettled -- just enough to make people cautious," says Stewart Stack, president of Serious Grip & Electric, a local firm which has provided lighting and staging equipment for many major productions. "We need to get some contracts under this new organization and show a track record."

Film officials thought they had one early this spring with "The President Elopes," a Universal Pictures film that was to have starred Robert Redford. Mr. Schlossberg-Cohen says the film was scheduled for several weeks of filming, half in Maryland and half in Washington. "It would have been a pretty big deal for us," he says.

But Mr. Redford's last film, "Havana," bombed at the box office and the cost-conscious studio chose not to pay him the fee he wanted, according to Mr. Schlossberg-Cohen. He says the project is now in "turnaround," meaning it has returned to the market, looking for another backer.

While Maryland was grappling with a changing labor environment, other cities were stepping up their efforts to attract filmmakers.

Among them was Pittsburgh, which offered the same older, industrial look as Baltimore.

Over the years, Pittsburgh had served as the locale for such pictures as "Night of the Living Dead," "The Deer Hunter" and "Dominick and Eugene." Eighteen months ago, the city opened its own film office with a mission similar to that of the Maryland Film Commission; since then, the city has been the site of no less than 12 feature films.

Robert Curran, director of the Pittsburgh Film Office, said the boom results from a "balance" between low costs, governmental cooperation and attractive locations. He admits that the non-unionized film work force is a "significant factor" in the city's attractiveness. And Dan Martin, executive vice president of the company that made "Cobb's Law," said that the production was able to save $200,000, or about six percent of its budget, by dealing with a non-union work force, including a 15 percent savings in fringe benefits.

If IATSE Local 487, which for now encompasses Pittsburgh, has its way, the city won't be a non-union film town forever. "There are two films coming into Pittsburgh that will come under the strong scrutiny of the union," says Mr. Harbinson. "They are being evaluated as to the ability of the IA to organize them."

But Mr. Curran says that it is a "misconception" on the part of the union that organizing Pittsburgh will allow other unionized cities like Baltimore to compete with it on an equal footing. "The business will go to Canada, Mexico or some other [U.S.] city," he asserts. "The industry will find a way to make the films at a price it wants. The idea of Hollywood is to create illusions. And they can create illusions anywhere."

That argument angers Mr. Harbinson. "That's the crap that Curran's been feeding his technicians," he says, adding, "There's a helluva lot of money to be made in this industry. We want to see the technicians compensated in a manner that reflects their contribution."

But he stresses his willingness to be flexible in negotiating contracts. "This union is completely prepared to accommodate any budget," he declares. "All [a filmmaker] has to do is pick up the phone."

Steve Yeager, an industrial filmmaker whose first feature film, "On the Block," was released earlier this year on a shoestring budget of $325,000, says that Mr. Harbinson "really went overboard to accommodate my budget. He gave me breaks on weekend and premium rates."

Mr. Yeager, who hopes to shoot a second feature film here next spring, says the union would not be a "deterrent at all" to the project.

Llewellyn Wells, co-producer of a major film adaptation of Alice McDermott's novel "That Night," says it's "very possible" that the movie -- whose other producer, Arnon Milchan, also produced "Pretty Woman" -- could be shot in and around Baltimore "if we can make the numbers work."

Mr. Wells said his company was "very well received" by both government and union officials. Although both the Teamsters and the IA locals have been "a great deal of help" in negotiations, he conceded that "union contracts are always an issue no matter where you decide to shoot." He said a decision on the filming location would be made "within a week or two" but declined to say what other cities were being considered.

To demonstrate the union's flexibility and attempt to drum up business, Mr. Harbinson and Mr. Schlossberg-Cohen have been traveling to Los Angeles together once a month since January to meet with studio executives. But even in the best of times the odds of a contact leading to a picture are long.

Last year, Mr. Schlossberg-Cohen says, the film commission logged more than 200 inquiries about possible film projects.

From those came three major films that a spent a week or more in the state: "He Said, She Said" and "Homicide," which spent 12 and 10 weeks, respectively, in Baltimore, and "True Colors," which spent a week in Annapolis.

Mr. Schlossberg-Cohen says that he would "love to have six pictures a year" shot in Maryland.

To do so the state "can't just depend on John [Waters] and Barry [Levinson]" or strictly be an "importer of films" but try "to encourage [local] people to do their own films."

Among the latest to respond to the challenge are J.C.A. Film Partners, a company composed of former Towson State University students who have raised one fifth of the $100,000 they need to film "Permanent Damage." The film is the story of four clean-cut college kids who turn to a life of crime as an alternative to their middle-class lifestyle.

Director Russell Farmarco, a 1990 TSU graduate, says the group's role models are independent filmmakers like Mr. Waters and Spike Lee, who succeeded doing their own thing.

"We really believe in the talent of everyone involved," he says.

Mr. Schlossberg-Cohen's hope is that such low-budget, local efforts will become the seeds of major careers by home-grown filmmakers who will choose to make their movies here. "Who's to say?" he says. "When John Waters started, everyone laughed at him."

Movies shot in Maryland

The following are films that were shot completely or partly in Maryland since 1978. Asterisk (*) denotes made-for-television movies.

Year .. .. Title of film .. .. .. .. Location .. .. .. .. .. .. Time spent

released .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..in Md.

1978 .. .. ". . . And Justice .. .. .Baltimore .. .. .. .. .. .. ..8 weeks

.. .. .. ..for All"

1979 .. .. "The Seduction .. .. .. ..Baltimore, Annapolis .. .. .. 3 weeks

.. .. .. ..of Joe Tynan"

1981 .. .. "Polyester" .. .. .. .. ..Baltimore, Anne .. .. .. .. ..4 weeks

.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .Arundel County

1982 .. .. "Best Friends" .. .. .. ..College Park .. .. .. .. .. .. 1 week

1982 .. .. "Diner" .. .. .. .. .. .. Baltimore .. .. .. .. .. .. .11 weeks

1984 .. .. "Prime Risk" .. .. .. .. .Bethesda .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 2 weeks

1984 .. .. "Space"* .. .. .. .. .. ..Annapolis, Chestertown .. .. .4 weeks

1985 .. .. "Liberty"* .. .. .. .. .. Baltimore .. .. .. .. .. .. ..6 weeks

1985 .. .. "The Man With .. .. .. .. Chevy Chase .. .. .. .. .. .. .1 week

.. .. .. ..One Red Shoe"

1985 .. .. "Mirror Image"* .. .. .. .Annapolis, Prince .. .. .. .. 4 weeks

.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .George's County

1985 .. .. "St. Elmo's Fire" .. .. ..College Park .. .. .. .. .. .. 1 week

1985 .. .. "Sweet Dreams" .. .. .. ..Hagerstown .. .. .. .. .. .. .2 weeks

1986 .. .. "Bedroom Window" .. .. .. Baltimore .. .. .. .. .. .. ..3 weeks

1986 .. .. "Mosquito Coast" .. .. .. Baltimore .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 1 week

1986 .. .. "Tin Men" .. .. .. .. .. .Baltimore .. .. .. .. .. .. .10 weeks

1986 .. .. "Violets Are Blue" .. .. .Baltimore, Ocean City .. .. .10 weeks

1987 .. .. "Broadcast News" .. .. .. Chevy Chase, BWI .. .. .. .. .2 weeks

1987 .. .. "No Way Out" .. .. .. .. .Annapolis, Baltimore .. .. .. 2 weeks

1988 .. .. "Accidental Tourist" .. ..Baltimore .. .. .. .. .. .. ..4 weeks

1988 .. .. "Clara's Heart" .. .. .. .Baltimore, .. .. .. .. .. .. 10 weeks

.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .Eastern Shore

1988 .. .. "Hairspray" .. .. .. .. ..Baltimore .. .. .. .. .. .. .10 weeks

1988 .. .. "Her Alibi" .. .. .. .. ..Baltimore, Balto. Co. .. .. .11 weeks

1988 .. .. "Men"* .. .. .. .. .. .. .Baltimore .. .. .. .. .. .. ..3 weeks

1988 .. .. "Satisfaction (Sweet .. ..Baltimore .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 1 week

.. .. .. ..Little Rock 'n' Roller)"

1988 .. .. "War and Remembrance"* .. Annapolis, Fort Meade .. .. .. 1 week

1989 .. .. "Jacob Have I Loved"* .. .Somerset County .. .. .. .. ..4 weeks

1989 .. .. "Chances Are" .. .. .. .. Glen Echo, Rockville .. .. .. 2 weeks

1990 .. .. "Men Don't Leave" .. .. ..Baltimore area .. .. .. .. .. 4 weeks

1990 .. .. "Cry Baby" .. .. .. .. .. Baltimore, Howard Co. .. .. .11 weeks

1990 .. .. "Avalon" .. .. .. .. .. ..Baltimore, Balto. Co. .. .. .13 weeks

1991 .. .. "He Said, She Said" .. .. Baltimore .. .. .. .. .. .. .12 weeks

1991 .. .. "Russian Roulette" .. .. .BWI .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 2 days

1991 .. .. "True Colors" .. .. .. .. Annapolis .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 1 week

1991 .. .. "Moon Over Miami" .. .. ..Frederick County .. .. .. .. ..2 days

1991 .. .. "Homicide" .. .. .. .. .. Baltimore .. .. .. .. .. .. .10 weeks

1991 .. .. "On the Block" .. .. .. ..Baltimore .. .. .. .. .. .. ..5 weeks

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